Saturday, September 22, 2007

WE CAN BE HEROES JUST FOR ONE DAY: Part of the plan for Heroes this season is that the show will wrap up early and end the year with a spinoff called Heroes: Origins, which will be an anthology-type show, allowing a group of writers and directors to develop their own Heroes, who may be added to the main show as regulars or even become their own spinoffs. Half the writer/directors have now been announced, apparently, and they include:
  • Eli Roth (Hostel, Cabin Fever)
  • Kevin Smith
  • John August (Charlie's Angels, Big Fish, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory)
  • Michael Dougherty (co-writer of Superman Returns and X2)
Any of these intrigue you?
AIDS, CRACK, BERNIE GOETZ: The Brave One is generally (and unsurprisingly) a well-made and well-acted film, which turns out to be a strong portrayal of PTSD and one of the ways it can impact people. However, what bugged was not in the film itself, but rather the audience's reaction to the film. I think the film is intended to provoke the sort of reactions I had to Foster's acts of vigilantism--at best, ambiguous, and at times, revulsion. Instead, most of the audience responded to her blowing away "bad guys" with a very positive response. This isn't Death Wish, much as some audience members seemed to want it to be.

(Interestingly, it's also an appropriate companion to Jennifer Westfeldt's Ira & Abby, which I saw last weekend, and which demonstrates a decidedly different, yet ultimately equally effective, way of dealing with a subway mugging.)
BECAUSE I CAN GET A QUICKER RESPONSE FROM YOU THAN FROM RANDY COHEN: Street parking can be difficult for those of us who live in the city, and folks who have garages as part of their homes enjoy a true luxury. What secures that privilege, of course, is that when someone parks in front of the garage without consent, they can get towed.

The question arises, however, as to parking in front of a garage with the homeowner's consent. Can the owner of the house let friends park in that otherwise-unavailable spot for fifteen minutes? For a few hours while visiting for dinner? For longer? Or with the right to keep that space clear for one's own garage access, is there a corollary responsibility to not let anyone else park there for any reason?
A TIME TO MOURN: It appears my old reliable standard def TiVo has finally collapsed in a blaze of glory. No big deal, since I've been substantially completely dependent on the cable company DVR (which, unlike my old TiVo, has dual tuners, records in HD, and allows me to hear surround sound) for the last several months. Given the circumstance, and that Amazon appears to be running an incredible special, I'm thinking of moving to the TiVo HD product. A few questions for the ALOTT5MAsphere's expertise in this area:
  • Does anyone have experience with doing the setup of the system with dual CableCards and/or the difficulty or ease of getting CableCards from the cable company and getting them working (particularly with Time Warner NYC)? It seems that to record the HD/digital stuff, I'm really going to need them.
  • I like the TiVo software and interface (not to mention side features like unbox, remote scheduling, and transfer to computer) enough that I'm willing to pay a couple of dollars more for it than the current setup. Anyone have experience with the pricing comparison? As I calculate it, I save $9 (DVR rate) plus $9 (set top box rate), but incur costs of $4 (two CableCards) and $12 (prepaying for two years, averaged out) as a result, which might make it cheaper. (Might also take advantage of the chance to reshuffle some other service and try and get a promo rate.)

Friday, September 21, 2007

BIG BANG BABY, CRASH CRASH CRASH: I have watched much mediocre to bad television in my life. ALF, Small Wonder, Emily's Reasons Why Not. Indeed, at one point, I even attempted to watch episodes of the competiting torture game shows The Chair and The Chamber. That said, I don't know if I've ever disliked a show as much as I disliked the pilot of The Big Bang Theory (available for free on iTunes, and not a good bargain even at that price). What works? Um, Kaley Cuoco is pretty, there's a nice Barenaked Ladies theme song, and, well, that's about it. The shows lacks a high concept (hot girl moves in across the hall from science dorks), sharp writing (the best joke involves a Stephen Hawking impression), or interesting acting (it's like Cuoco was directed contantly with "same thing, only dumber!" and the dorks with "same thing, only more nervous and awkward"). An overbearing laugh track doesn't help matters in the least, but, if anything, draws attention to how aggressively unfunny many of the jokes are. Sad that this is HIMYM's leadout. Sadder still that it and Cane appear to be getting most of CBS's new show promotion this year. To be avoided.
THE EXHIBITION OF MOVING PICTURES IS A BUSINESS, PURE AND SIMPLE: As I tried to argue in our last class, the arrival of an entirely new medium, such as sound recording, always marks a pivotal moment in pop-culture history. Unfortunately, it's often hard for us to appreciate just how pivotal such moments were -- since we cannot even imagine our popular culture without or before those media. The same imaginative challenge surfaces when we talk about the birth of motion pictures: just think how astonishing it must have been to see photographic images actually appear to move across a screen! (Though exactly why those images appear to move is still a matter of some dispute.)

The technological developments behind movies proceeded pretty rapidly. Thomas Edison's 1891 kinetoscope allowed viewers to look into a "peep hole" and watch a short film unspooling inside. While kinetscopes proved an amusing novelty, inventors soon realized that the real commercial potential lay in projectors for public exhibition: the Vitascope, the Cinematographe, the Biograph. By the turn of the century, movies had become featured attractions in vaudeville halls and traveling shows, and in 1905 films got their own dedicated theaters with the rise of the nickelodeon. (No, Dora had nothing to do with it.)

Within a couple of years, American cities were in the grip of "nickel madness." Movies especially appealed to immigrant and working-class audiences. After all, silent films were cheap, exciting, and understandable to anyone regardless of education or language. Many of these early movies appear unremarkable and innocuous to us today: from a kissing couple to a traveling train, from assorted vaudeville acts to re-enactments of the Spanish-American War. But the wonder of moving pictures in itself was enough to draw huge crowds, and the development of narrative "story films," like Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903), introduced new subjects and additional techniques (such as cross-cutting, stunt work, and special effects) that made the movies even more compelling.

But as Daniel Czitrom explains in Media and the American Mind (excerpted in our textbook), critics increasingly worried about the possible dangers of motion pictures -- the dark, unhealthy theaters; the uneducated, impressionable audiences; and especially the morally questionable content of the films themselves. Too many movies, critics said, featured outlaw heroes, loose women, and a whole menu of vices. Civic groups, religious leaders, and politicians called for local review boards to censor motion pictures; film producers, distributors, and exhibitors, on the other hand, claimed "freedom of expression." In 1915, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that motion pictures were not covered by the First Amendment -- in part because movies were not "organs of public opinion" but "a business, pure and simple," but also because movies' extraordinary "power" over their viewers made them "capable of evil" and therefore a potential threat to civil order.

So, ThingThrowers, let's try to put ourselves in the seats of those old nickelodeons. Leave aside today's complaints about audience members on cell phones and lousy customer service, and focus purely on film-as-medium. Do movies still hold a sense of wonder for you? Do they still possess the "power" that the Court worried about in 1915? Is the experience of sitting in a darkened theater watching larger-than-life images flicker across your retinas still something special, something powerful? If so, why? If not, why not?

Next week: Birth of a Nation, the rise of the movie star, and the New Woman.
YOU THOUGHT WERE A BIG SHOT, DID YOU, YOU HAD TO OPEN UP YOUR MOUTH: Anyone else giving TVBigShot a try? My network holds the following programs:
  • How I Met Your Mother--both out of my love for the show and the fact that CBS seems to be selling its Monday comedy block pretty hard this year, particularly new (albeit awful) leadout Big Bang Theory. That, coupled with the summer buzz, might be enough to see a bump.
  • Heroes--Sure, it's almost always losing the slot to Two And A Half Men, but the lead cast gets a fair amount of media attention, and US Weekly and People covers are worth points. (I think Hayden Panettiere could be a big scorer there.) I'm open to flipping this if premiere ratings/response aren't as strong as expected/hoped.
  • Journeyman--New programs are cheap on TVBigShot, and the pilot apparently tested well. Also, while CSI: Miami dominates that slot, it seems like does so by default and could be taken down by the right program. Risky, but worth taking. If it tanks, will be quickly flipped.
  • Gossip Girl--Cheap, and even if it only gets One Tree Hill level ratings (as it did this week), still a 33% profit to be had. Also, a potential US/People goldmine.
  • Back To You--Looking like a good buy already, as it won its timeslot this week, and, depending on how Pushing Daisies does, seems likely to continue to do so. And Grammer/Heaton will assuredly make for a TV Guide cover or two, and maybe even Golden Globe points.
  • Private Practice--This just seems like straight up arbitrage. Buy it for $53M, with Grey's valued at $144M, and even if the first couple episodes do only half of Grey's ratings, you've got a very nice return. The large and attractive ensemble cast also means you've got the potential for US/People points.

Anyone else playing or have picks?

FREE JOSH CHARLES! I think I can speak for all of us here when I say that ALOTT5MA stands in full support of the apparently recently enacted Sorkin Alum Full Employment Act. Among the Sorkin alums with new ventures this fall:
  • Peter Krause, who's the lead in Dirty Sexy Money.
  • Joshua Malina, who's a lead in the apparently awful Big Shots.
  • Greg Baker (who played one of the techs on Sports Night) has landed a recurring role on Hannah Montana.
  • Allison Janney is in Juno (a/k/a, the ALOTT5MA dream cast, alongside Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, J.K. Simmons, and Rainn Wilson).
  • Janel Moloney is doing an off-Broadway play.
  • Rob Lowe becomes a regular on Brothers and Sisters this fall.
  • Kristin Chenoweth is a regular on Pushing Daisies.
  • Simon Helberg (Alex, the impressions guy on Studio 60) is a regular on The Big Bang Theory, which 8 minutes in is so painful that I'm thinking self-proclaimed nerds need to sue this show for group libel.
  • Ayda Field (Jeannie from Studio 60) is a regular on Back To You, the show that proves even immensely talented people can't make seriously hackish material funny (and the "slut" makeup on her is not attractive at all).
  • Merritt Wever (Suzanne from Studio 60) apparently has a major role in upcoming George Clooney legal thriller Michael Clayton, which is looking kind of like Damages done right.
DON'T WAFFLE ON THIS ONE: Certain blog posts and news events call upon specific friends for assistance. For this one, it could only be Mr. Cosmopolitan:
September. The days are shorter, evening commuters revel in the nip of coming autumn, Sunday afternoons are again sacrosanct bastions of gridiron combat. School buses resume their daily patrols, nature bedecks herself in kaleidoscopic splendor, and barristers everywhere tingle in anticipation of a new Supreme Court term. At times like these, it is perhaps inevitable that one’s thoughts turn to the repercussions of 19th century European realpolitik – specifically, the fate of Belgium.

For a nation some 54 years the junior of the United States, Belgium has carved a fine niche for itself on the world stage. Its creation soothed tensions between the Calvinist Netherlands and Roman Catholic France. Its scrupulous neutrality has allowed Brussels to serve as common ground for a host of international organizations, including NATO and the European Union. And its contributions to world gastronomy are nothing less than spectacular – fine chocolates, frites, the eponymous waffles (and their successor, the ice-cream cone), and Trappist abbey ale.

But on the other hand, what’s so great about a country that essentially serves as a highway for France and Germany to invade each other, and the name of which the rest of the universe considers the foulest of insults? It doesn’t even have its own language, just two outrageous accents: Dutch and French. And, frankly, Brussels sprouts far outweigh the salutary cuisine springing from this country. Perhaps the archaic remnant of von Metternich’s world design should be consigned to the ash heap of history. Dutch-dominated Flanders can hi-diddily-hightail it back to the Netherlands, and French Walloons can return to a country where they will still be insulted, but now in a language they can understand.

To resolve this most pressing and perplexing of issues, the proprietors of the weblog “ALOTT5MA” invite their readers, lurkers, and guests to join them in the comments to debate the following:

RESOLVED: This Blog No Longer Believes in Belgium.
NO JACKRABBITS WERE HARMED IN THE FILMING OF THIS REALITY SHOW: OK, folks, Kid Nation. Did anyone watch? If so, what did you think? Am I the only one who thinks Jimmy made the right call? I thought the show was OK, but my kids (ages 6 and 8) were riveted. And what was with the lack of commercials. I am guessing it was less CBS's generosity and more sponsor wariness.
BOTTLE OF WHITE, BOTTLE OF RED, PERHAPS A BOTTLE OF ROSE INSTEAD: Unfortunately, the American version of Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares is a hideous failure in every possible way, with none of the charming stories of people in over their heads, none of the angst of folks whose dreams and livelihoods are tinkering on the edge of the dole queue, none of the brief glimpses into the nightmarish world of restaurant economics.

I love the original version, mind you. Gordon Ramsey would drop in (with a camera man and a sound guy) on a once-great restaurant in England or Wales, look what was going wrong, and try to help the owners turn things around. After abusing them for 10 or 15 minutes on the show, he'd find a few things that work and try to rebuild the restaurant from there. Strip down the menu, emphasize a new special service, get the kitchen staff to talk to one another, that sort of thing. Then he'd go on his merry way and see if those guys could put it right. Often as not, the restaurants would still fail. But other than the advice and perhaps some long-term publicity, the restaurant folks were there to make it on their own.

In the US version, Gordon Ramsey drops into an Italian restaurant on Long Island, and cleans up their mess for them. The show is heavy narrow shots of Italians screaming at one another and light on just about everything else. Sure, Ramsey tries to show the owners that the big brother is a lout whose both stealing money from the till and trying to regulate an untreated case of diabetes with bronzer and pineapple juice. But there's no analysis here, and no effort not to interfere. Instead, he tells them to switch to a family style menu, installs the business end of a Soviet N-1 in the kitchen, invites 150 people from central casting in to eat, declares victory and goes home.

Just as importantly, the emphasis on reality-style drama - overly long character sketches, the climax of a dispute with the out the build up - takes the show away from the very point. That is, what makes a restaurant work, and what doesn't. You may not have learned much from the UK version. You'll get nothing of that from this.

I love the original and may give this show a second chance. But I'm not very optomistic.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

FOR THE SIN WE HAVE COMMITTED BEFORE YOU BY LEVITY: By reader request, this post is available for speculation as to the sins for which your favorite celebrities (Tribe or otherwise) need to be atoning by sundown on Saturday. Amy Winehouse, come on down.
HOT ON THE HEELS OF RICHARD PRESTON'S LATEST NEW YORKER PIECE: Just a reminder that ebola is among us, and apparently we're not being all that careful. Oh, ebola, I've missed you.
GRAMMAR DEBATE OF THE DAY: The "Harvard Comma," pro or con? I am extremely pro, to the point of that a substantial portion of my final "proofreading" edits to something winds up being adding "Harvard Commas."
FRANCIE WAS NEVER HERE: So how many people, exactly, at People Magazine cover Grey's Anatomy? I swear that there were about as many commentators on last night's Addison Forbes Montgomery Shepherd "Please Come Watch Her New Show" retrospective as there are doctors at Seattle Grace. And not one of them had anything remotely insightful to say: "Wasn't it just so saaaaad to see Addison realize that Derek really really loves Meredith???"

Nitwittery aside, I was amused to see how the Private Practice bits were edited to (a) eliminate all trace of Merrin Dungey and replace her with the heretofore-unseen Audra McDonald and (b) show the naked-Addison-dancing silhouette as many times as humanly possible. I'm not sure how I feel about the new show and its prospects. Although I can't remember anyone having thought that the spinoff setup episode of GA was actually any good, I also can't think of any GA fans who don't have a real soft spot in their hearts -- and thus potentially their DVRs -- for Addison.

As for GA itself, I will be curious to see how the show deals with not one but two gaping character holes. I have to assume that when the decision was made to give Kate Walsh her own show, no one thought that Isaiah Washington was going to blow himself up and get ousted from the show at the same time. Without Addison and Burke, the medical staff at Seattle Grace is suddenly rather short on actual grownups. And the addition of the half-sister-of-Meredith-whose-residency-application-was-somehow-never-mentioned-to-her seems likely to further that trend.

p.s. Looking over the posts for the last 24 hours or so, let me just say how happy it makes me that we've got the fall tv season rolling. It was a long dry summer this year, and it's nice to have everyone back in town.
SCHRUTE-VISION: This strikes me as big news: "NBC Universal said yesterday that it would soon permit consumers to download many of NBC’s most popular programs free to personal computers and other devices for one week immediately after their broadcasts. ... Under the new NBC service, called NBC Direct, consumers will be able to download, for no fee, NBC programs like 'Heroes,' 'The Office' and 'The Tonight Show With Jay Leno' on the night that they are broadcast and keep them for seven days."

You won't be able to FF through the commercials, and the files will be non-tranferrable and, indeed, self-destruct in seven days.
EVERYONE HAS HIS REASONS: After 174 ballots and much effort by Edward Copeland, the online film community now has produced its list of the top 100 foreign language films of all time. Don't miss Copeland's intro to the list, as well as the 22 films that missed the final cut. As someone who has seen far too few of these films, I've now got a DVD checklist to last a long, long time.
WHO FEELS THAT PASSIONATE ABOUT DARTMOUTH ANYWAY? Well, nobody got punched and thrown in a pool, but Gossip Girl, I think I love you, just a little bit. I do have the softest of spots for the utterly-predictable prettily-cast high school drama.

And "Serena Vanderwoodson" is one of the greatest televised soap opera names of all time, almost as good as "Blake Lively" or "Penn Badgley" or "Chace Crawford."
WHEN GIRLS HAVE STANKY ATTITUDES, IT IRKS ME: Crackhead mothers, abused children, Aspergers-ADHD double-diagnoses, non-nude strippers, people named Marvita, $25 weaves -- it must be America's Next Top Model time!

Tyra: "You've had a hard life. Tell us about the difficult times you had, beginning with the crackhead mother and continuing through the homelessness, the gout, the psoriasis, the loss of innocence, the strained relationship with your barista, and the time some stranger with no sense of boundaries asked you to describe all of the difficult times you had but was just using you for your story without any intention of returning the favor. Do not omit any details."

Holy crap, that girl's name is Spontaniouse?

Two inviolable rules of ANTM: There is, as always, an Ebony. Ebony is, as always, disliked by her peers.

The girl from Yale is a dead ringer for Millie from Freaks & Geeks.

This show is a great example of why you shouldn't do reality shows back-to-back. Jaslene couldn't crack the top 13 two cycles ago, and she wouldn't crack it this season either. This is kind of an embarrassment of riches.

But: Mila? Really?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I LOVE MY BIG GAY CHEF: More so when he outcooks everybody's ass, but love him nonetheless this week. Always quotable, usually edible, Dale is the new Top Chef favorite for the Throckmortons here in the Land Beyond CJ. Casey is a close second despite the Dallas thing, which has faded into the background over the course of the season behind an entirely professional and personable competitor who has delivered consistently down the stretch. Hung is an oddball, in a good way, and fun even when he's being a bit snotty or shifty. Again and again he proves that he certainly can cook. Sara has gotten a little bland. Malarkey likewise, only he bugs me.

For the Quickfire this week, we thought the Le Cirque challenge was brilliant. Testing the contestants' ability to taste, appreciate, deconstruct and replicate a masterwork entree is a much better challenge than asking them to improvise something palatable from a single randomly selected aisle of the supermarket. And yet, still good television! Contrast guest judge Sirio Maccioni's appraisal of Hung's effort ("Bravo.") with Hung's own assessment ("I f*cking killed it!"). That's just good lightly-censored fun right there. Accord, A. Bourdain:

Top Chef fans? Just as no one can say boo about the judging this week, no one -- NO ONE -- can complain about the challenges. No quirky, kooky, product-placing roach-coach stunts this time, my friends. No one had to make quesadillas over an open can of sterno in the back of a moving Rav 4. Or prepare a festive snack out of Froot Loops while wearing a Glad Family of Bags over their head. Tonight, the challenges were not only perfectly suited to the task of deciding who might someday be a "Top Chef", but were also perfectly matched to the judging panel.

For the who's-going-to-Aspen elimination challenge, they brought in the big guns. How big? Old pals of Julia Child big. Gods in the pantheon worshiped by Bourdain himself big. (No really, if you're still reading this instead of clicking over to Bourdain, you're missing a truly touching reminiscence about dining at Soltner's Lutece way back in the day.) And the challenge itself struck close to home for me and mine: here's a chicken; here's an onion; here's a potato; get cooking. I will dutifully click past all the can-a-tan orange people on to procure the recipes behind this week's efforts for the simple reason that we eat something very much like those ingredients about once a week around here. Bravo, Bravo Network, you f*cking killed it this week.

Not sure what to add about the elimination round, except that (i) Malarkey's peasant pie looked like it was fresh out the back end of a cow, (ii) I wish Dale wasn't such a spaz, and (iii) I thought for a second there that Hung was going to argue about his potatoes even when judgment was being passed by God-among-chefs Soltner. How funny would that have been?

And the results? We're fine with the results.
1, 2, 3, 4, TELL ME THAT YOUR EARS ARE SORE: On a scale of '1' to 'kill me now and make it quick,' just how sick are you of the Feist song being used to promote the new iPod?
I CAN'T GET, CAN'T GET THERE FROM HERE/I'VE BEEN THERE I KNOW THE WAY: In the ALOTT5MA Board of Directors meeting at ALOTT5MA Plaza this morning (present -- Bonin; Cosmo; Elwood; Earthling; Gordon; Marcotte; Spaceman; Throckmorton; absent - Shacklebolt), the third order of business (after P&L and Year-2000 Compliance) was identifying at least one song concerning as many methods of conveyance as possible. The Subcommittee on Songs About Trains, Cars, and Motorcycles, operating with a surfeit of material, will conduct a survey and report its results in a later meeting. The Board at large compiled the following list of songs concerning other, less-popularly-balladeered, conveyances:
  • Fat Bottom Girls (bicycles)
  • Skater Boi (skateboards)
  • I've Got a Brand New Pair of Roller Skates (You've Got a Brand New Key) (roller skates)
  • 50 Mission Cap (ice skates)
  • Mountains Win Again (skis)
  • Convoy (trucks)
  • Tonight's the Night (vans)
  • Country Grammar (SUVs)
  • Oh, Streetcar (streetcars)
  • Monorail! (monorails)
  • Over My Head (cable cars)
  • Mark on the Bus (buses)
  • If I Had a Boat (yachts)
  • In the Navy (larger ships)
  • The Water is Wide (personal watercraft)
  • Surfing Safari (surfboards)
  • Erie Canal (barges)
  • Stairway to Heaven (stairways)
  • Super Bon Bon (elevators)
  • Up the Down Escalator (escalators)
  • No Sign of Life (fire escapes)
  • Funiculi Funicula (funiculars)
  • A Horse with No Name (horses with no names)
  • Wildfire (horses with names)
  • Pull Your Hat Down Tight (bulls)
  • Ride my Llama (llamas, extraterrestrial spaceships)
  • Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft (extraterrestrial spaceships, llama status indeterminate)
  • Space Oddity (terrestrial spaceships)
  • Vengeance (The Pact) (sort of large featherless bird - a Roc or Dragon-like aerial beast of burden)
  • Greatest American Hero Theme Song (non-winged flying)
  • (Take These) Broken Wings (wings, broken)
  • I Believe I Can Fly (wings, imaginary)
  • Stratford-on-Guy (airplanes, in air)
  • American Pie (airplanes, not in air)
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (winged cars)
  • Unmarked Helicopters (unmarked helicopters)
  • Police Helicopters (marked helicopters)
  • Parachute Woman (parachutes)
  • She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain (stagecoaches)
  • Wells Fargo Wagon (the Wells Fargo Wagon)
  • Walking after Midnight (feet, own)
  • He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother (feet, others')
  • I'm Gonna Crawl (hands and knees)
  • Boogie Shoes (shoes, boogie)
  • Blue Suede Shoes (shoes, blue suede)
  • Roller Coaster of Love (roller coasters of love)
  • Magic Carpet Ride (magic carpets)
  • Taxi (marijuana-infused taxis)
  • St. Elmo's Fire (wheelchairs)
Any conveyances that we missed? Any songs that better represent the ones on the list above?
THAT'S JUST THE BESTEST BAND WHAT AM: For most of the 19th century, popular music revolved around the piano in the Victorian parlor. As mass production allowed more middle-class families to buy their own pianos, the sheet music industry emerged during the 1880s and 1890s to provide more tunes for those families to play. Up and down "Tin Pan Alley" (a stretch of 28th Street in Manhattan), songwriters and publishers banged out hit after hit, most of them cheerful waltzes and sentimental ballads like "After the Ball" and "In the Good Old Summertime." Many of you probably sing a classic Tin Pan Alley song on a regular basis during the spring and summer (and even into the fall, if your team does well).

Yet some consumers demanded music with more rhythm and excitement than the lilting melodies of Tin Pan Alley. For a few years in the 1890s, this demand was met through the bizarre fad of "coon songs," jaunty but outrageously racist tunes that drew on the worst elements of blackface minstrelsy. (Ironically, one of the most disturbing yet successful of these songs, "All Coons Look Alike to Me," was written by Ernest Hogan, an African-American performer and composer.) Coon songs did, however, prepare the way for ragtime, that brilliant piano genre exemplified by Scott Joplin's million-selling "Maple Leaf Rag" (1899). Ragtime, in turn, pushed Tin Pan Alley to appropriate a few superficial stylistic features from African-American music -- syncopated melodies, a marching left-hand part -- and market this more "exotic" yet still respectable product to white middle-class consumers. Irving Berlin proved a master at this technique of cultural skimming, as heard in "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1911).

This vogue for "ragtime songs" soon sparked "dance madness" among young working-class audiences, a craze described vividly by historian Kathy Peiss in her book Cheap Amusements, excerpted in our textbook. Here again, though, any potentially uncouth or disreputable elements of the new dances were quickly contained, as ballroom dancers like Irene and Vernon Castle taught Americans to spurn the vulgar "bunny hug" and "grizzly bear" in favor of the more refined "fox trot."

But the crucial moment in the birth of a full-blown popular music industry came with the development of recording technology. Beginning with Thomas Edison's phonograph cylinder and continuing through Emile Berliner's gramophone records and the RCA-Victor Victrola, by the early 1920s recordings had completely revolutionized the production and consumption of popular music. No longer did the music business focus on composers and parlor piano players; now the spotlight shone most brightly on the recorded performer. Where older songs could meander through several verses and choruses, the limited capacity of cylinders and records required that popular songs last no more than three or four minutes. Perhaps most significantly, recording made popular music an essentially passive consumer experience. No need to go to a concert hall or learn a new piece of sheet music -- just put a record on the Victrola, sit back, and enjoy.

While I doubt any of us would want to go back to a time before recording technology, it's worth thinking about the profound differences between making music yourself, hearing a live concert, and listening to a recording. Yes, recording offered democratic access to a whole world of musical production -- but did it also lead to standardization, commercialization, and a declining appreciation for live performance and composition? If video killed the radio star, did recording kill (or at least wound) the singer and the songwriter?
NICE GUYS WOULD FINISH LAST, EXCEPT THAT THEY'RE NOT ACTUALLY ALLOWED ON THIS SHOW IN THE FIRST PLACE: Big Brother is the lamest long-running reality show in the history of that category (yes, lamer than Road Rules, lamer than the always-makes-me-laugh-dammit-I-admit-it America's Funniest (nee Home) Videos, lamer than that pixellated Euro-recycled nude candid camera thing that the Reality Channel sometimes shows late at night). Maybe it's better in Europe, where they cast it only with pretty people and can show the nudity, but whatever. Over its eight seasons in the US, the show started slow (evicting all interesting people first, then suffering through a sit-down strike), got a little better with a couple of decent casts (Evil Dr. Will is in the reality hall of fame, and the next season had a solid all-around cast willing to wear peanut-butter as clothing), and then got bad again. Way too much time on air (three or four hours a week), way too much Julie Chen (with her content-free pronouncements, push-polling interview style, and plastic surgery hot-dog-and-meatballs nose), way too weak competitions (a quiz show about the show just about every week), and way too dull casting.

This season, the show committed itself to a redemption arc by casting three sets of arch-enemies: high school rivals, ex-boyfriends, and a supposedly (though Internet chatter reveals not-really) estranged father-daughter pair. When half of each of the first two pairs was evicted quickly, the Donatos -- Tommy Lee-wannabe abusive bully Dick and vacuous live-in-boyfriend-cuckolding princess Daniele -- inherited all of the pre-planned narrative. It should not be surprising then, that while the show has been willing to punish people in the past for threatening behavior (banishment of Season 2's Justin for holding a knife to the throat of a consenting paramour, e.g.) or rule-breaking (assigning an eviction vote to Jen this season for a food transgression), it did nothing to punish Dick for, as Television Without Pity has reported, saying pretty graphically that he wanted to perform a particular act upon Jen until she bled to death, repeatedly attempting to burn Jen with a cigarette, or admitting openly that he obtained information from the outside world in violation of the show's rules. It's also not startling that Julie Chen's second interview question to every evictee was, essentially, "Dick's not really that bad, right?" Big Brother wanted to take credit for repairing a relationship -- any relationship -- because our heartstrings were just waiting to be tugged, I guess.

What is startling is that Big Brother's online fans, who collectively cast one of nine votes for the show's winner, actually favored Dick. There are two ways to take this information. As CBS clearly believes, voters might have found Dick's volatility and disgusting habits and liberal use of sodomy-threats endearing and genuinely wanted him to win. In the alternative, voters may have been just screwing with CBS, along the lines of making Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf the World's Most Beautiful Person.

Either way, Big Brother now has a reality-TV record to its credit: Most Loathsome Winner. I guess we get what we deserve, then.
A PIRATE'S FAVORITE BLOG? TNR'S THE PLANK: Today, September 19, is International Talk Like A Pirate Day. If ye need any pointers, learn about The Five A's.

(The lobbying organization pirates are most afraid of? AAAAARRRRRP!)
BECAUSE I CAN GET A QUICKER RESPONSE FROM YOU THAN FROM RANDY COHEN: When sections of newspaper are left by patrons at coffee establishments, is it ethical for other patrons to remove the newspaper from the store and take it with them, or is the abandoned newspaper the "property" of the store which must remain there for further subsequent patrons? And is it ethical for a patron to complete all the puzzles in such an abandoned newspaper, or is the ethical position to attempt only one, and leave the remainder for other further subsequent patrons?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

SHE REMAINS THE REIGNING LORELAI: OK--you're NBC head Ben Silverman, and you've just signed Lauren Graham to a million plus dollar holding deal. What do you try to develop for her? Do you go with a Desperate Housewives knockoff? Try her in a procedural-type show and try to recapture the success cable has had with The Closer and Saving Grace? Half-hour sitcom a la Sex And the City? New host of Deal or No Deal? Discuss.
OMG: Twenty-five years ago today, Carnegie Mellon professor Scott Fahlman posted the following on a university bulletin board:
I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:


Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use

Happy birthday, Smiley!
ONE DOOR CLOSES, ANOTHER OPENS: The Onion's AV Club now has a TV Blog for recaps and discussions of selected favorite shows, which may well fill the niche from which TWoP is inching away.
A CURSE WORD NORMALLY ASSOCIATED WITH FRUSTRATION OR DISGUST: Fox tries to explain its Emmy censorship, which gives me an excuse to link to the Family Guy song-and-dance which opened the show, as well as my favorite part of the show, the nominees for Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program.

Monday, September 17, 2007

AND HE'D SAY "MAGGIE, DO YOU WANT TO DANCE?" AND I'D SAY "DADDY, I WOULD LOVE TO": Fourteen years after winning the Tony, three years after putting Baby in a corner, and ten years before becoming Emily Gilmore, here is Kelly Bishop on Phil Donahue (along with fellow original castmates Kay Cole and Nancy Lane) at the ballet. Enjoy.
A RECAP OF A SHOW I BARELY REMEMBER: Previously, on Prison Break: Linc went to jail for drug-murdering the Vice-President’s brother, except he didn’t. He only was going to, except it was already done. Brother Mike went to jail for trying to rob a bank, except he didn’t. He just wanted to go to jail, where he could try out the World’s Least Efficient Full-Body Mnemonic Device. Dr. Sara gave up her bad habits, except she didn’t. She left drugs behind, but still loves her the thrill of a dangerous man. Mike, Linc, sociopathic mobster Abruzzi (sounds fake-Italian; is real-Italian), hard-cheese-for-Tony Iraq scapegoat C-Note, K-Fed, omnivo-rapist T-Bag, saintly lovebird Sucre, and Bad Dustin Hoffman Impression, with help from DB Sweeney (no, really), Cousin Hurley, Dr. Sara, and the Jackpot of All Mail Order Brides, conspire to break out. They succeed, due in large part to the incompetence of CO and dirty cheater Bill Belichick and elementary-school craft enthusiast Warden “Pope Warden” Pope, fka coke-importing Mike Hammer. Portion of giant-ass tattoo used in escape: 2.5% (hex-bolt sizer; deltoid map; annoying upside-down number puzzle; rendezvous location). I suppose the other 77.5% will come in handy later.

Pursued by a crack team of law enforcers -- bounty-seeking Belicheck; his old, out-of-shape Man Friday; master extrapolator Agent Mahone, a pill-popping tormented bad-father rogue who shares an ex-wife with Detective McNulty; Secret Agent Young Dan Ackroyd; and the least-menacing Asian menace since Mickey Rooney (what, exactly, did Bruce Lee think?) -- the team, minus T-Bag’s hand, splits up. Impenetrable disguise of choice: generic ballcap, hunched shoulders. Methods of transportation to DB Sweeney’s loot: borrowed motorcycle (Sucre), rental car and spurned prostitute (Linc, Mike), kindness of strangers (C-Note), craigslist shared ride of love (K-Fed), killing spree (T-Bag). All reach the stash at about the same time. To create a diversion while they dig through a concrete foundation for the loot, they let greasy rubber-handed reptilian liplicker T-Bag sweet-talk the faded rose who owns the garage, which naturally results in a hostage situation with an off-duty cop-daughter. Hijinks ensue, whereupon T-Bag escapes with the loot and Mike and Linc, brain surgeons, escape with ten years of National Geographics. Agent Mahone catches up, kills K-Fed (satisfyingly), Abruzzi (abruptly), and Bad Dustin Hoffman (chattily).

The Vice-President kills the President to prove a point. The point is lost on me.

Belicheck and Man Friday catch up with T-Bag, steal the money, and feud. T-Bag catches up with Man Friday, kills him in the act of trying to get hookers to defecate on a glass table above him, and frames Belicheck. Belicheck tries to outsmart the local rube detective, and predictably buys himself a ticket back up the (Fox) river, where he bunks with giant Avocado in Mike and Sucre's old cell. Belicheck's face during that reveal: "prison rape, ay caramba!" T-Bag moves back in with his old nonconsenting family, using handcuffs and rope to take attachment parenting to its logical extreme. I can’t remember how he gets caught, but it involves church ladies, returning to the old abusive homestead, and nobody acting in a manner that makes any sense.

C-Note gets his wife arrested, his ailing daughter’s insurance discontinued, and his own self thrown in prison, where he makes a deal with Mahone that includes a friendly proposal that he kill himself. There’s Getting Past No, there’s Getting to Yes, and there’s the advanced course, Getting the Other Side to Agree to Kill Himself.

Sucre makes a huge deal about how he’s Puerto Rican. Then he goes to visit his dear auntie in Mexico. He loves a hot girl with dimples, which convinces the bus rider with the live chicken to give him a Volkswagen Bug. He shares a ride with a Federale to the airport. I'd tell you how he escaped all the Federales, but they didn't show us. They just let him hang around out of kindness, I suppose.

Mike and Linc pretty much can’t take four steps without bumping into their black-ops dad (until he dies), Linc’s idiot son (until he gets thrown in jail and then released and then kidnapped and then just says I want out of this show), Mahone (a definite catch-and-release fisherman), or Sucre, but to get to Dr. Sara, they need to employ an elaborate origami-messaging system. Also, the following APB apparently does not work: “be on the lookout for a steely-gazed college boy with short-cropped hair, a generic baseball cap, and a full-body tattoo.”

There’s all kinds of angst with Special Agent Young Dan Ackroyd, but it involves his sister and his love for President Wettig and homoerotic office politics with Non-Menacing Asian and zzzzzz. He teams up with Mike and Linc, and they kidnap their prime evidence, the President’s brother, but while they're obsessing over the fact that he only kind of looks like himself, they manage to let him kill himself. They neglect to try the Weekend At Bernie’s escape plan, which, duh, of course.

Dr. Sara goes to trial for her role in the escape, but Special Agent Young Dan Ackroyd testifies in her behalf, and although his story is twelve different kinds of craaaaazy, the judge tosses Dr. Sara’s case right then and there, and sentences Young Dan Ackroyd to interminable sexual tension with Addison Montgomery.

Sucre, Mike, Belicheck (who took a La Femme Nikita deal from Mahone, sans les yeux triste ou les jambes longues d'Anne Parillaud*), Linc, Dr. Sara, Mahone, and Agent Not-Menacing Asian all rendezvous in Panama, where everybody kills, frames, gets framed, gets caught, backstabs, loses the money, or resolves to end the cycle of abuse; each ends up either dead or arrested. If they’re in Group B, they all end up in a Panamanian prison whose motto is "like Fox River, only Medieval, and less helpfully similar to Mike's tattoo."

Will Linc and Mike team up with Mahone and Belicheck to bust out again? Did C-Note kill himself? Will Dr. Sara forgive and forget and re-conspire? Will this show make one single bit of sense at any point this season? Tune in tonight next week tonight (whoops, missed it), I guess.

*Warning: 8th-Grade French not certifiedFrench certified -- merci, D'Arcy
WELL, THAT'S ONE WAY TO GET OUT OF A PRENUP: Look, I know "PopoZao" was an awful song, but that's no reason for someone to take out a contract hit on Kevin Federline.
SPARE THE GENERIC DESIGN-BY-MIDDLE-MANAGEMENT-COMMITTEE MAKEOVER, SPOIL THE CORPORATE WEBQUISITION: Long ago, there was a little web site devoted to Dawson's Creek recaps, then it expanded to the much-loved MightyBigTV (subtitle: Television Without Pity), then it almost folded a couple of times before shadowy white-knight types rescued it, then it got some sort of cease-and-desist letter and promoted its subtitle to title, then it started writing 35-page recaps and became the most powerful outsider (non-network, non-mainstream journalism) TV site on the web and Miss Alli bought herself the tallest most rickety soapbox in the entire world and they started willy-nilly banning commenters for bizarre reasons, and then Bravo bought it. Through it all MightyBigTV/TwoP had a remarkably consistent look. I think I remember exactly one major redesign, coinciding with some massive software upgrade to handle the forum traffic. Simple banner masthead, simple horizontal color-distinguished rows for the most recent stories, teaser box at the right-hand-side, navigation links at the bottom, all thematically integrated with Glark's clever little show icons -- hyperliteral interpretations of show titles, done in thick black ink against bright-colored square backgrounds.

Today's TwoP brings us the most radical redesign in the site's history, and I greet it with a hearty "yuck." Without the Glark icons, the site is just busy and frayed, with floating banners, mastheads, and top-story boxes rattling against each other. The photos replacing the Glark icons eschew humor for dry, legally-cleared identification, which only serves to underline the site's insider sponsorship. Sure, there are some changes that at least some here will welcome (weecaps for sitcoms, for example), but I question the wisdom of buying one of the most do-it-yourself success stories on the web and then bleaching out all of the idiosyncracy. I know that I tend to disagree with the professional web designers -- I love the McSweeney's look (which Blogger will helpfully allow you to rip off) and I have hated every single one of the bi-weekly redesigns that I've seen since I started reading that site in 1994, when Starwave published it (hey, remember when ESPN's layout was just a top story and then a grid of recent headlines, grouped by sport, with "more..." links if you needed them? How did we ever survive without auto-loading ESPNMotion screeching whenever we wanted an update on OJ's most recent felony?). Sometimes, all you really need from a web site is refined, economical simplicity.

Then again, I still lament the loss of the pixellated roll-over-for-photo pictures that the killed-by-acquisition Fametracker used to use instead of the imdb links.

Edited to add: (1) It has come to my attention that the icons may not be Glark-created (though it's not clear to me). I had just assumed that given that Glark was the design maven at TwoP, and I assumed he designed both the Glarkware t-shirts and the icons. Maybe, maybe not.

(2) Sars and Miss Alli are all over the technical forum saying, notwithstanding assumptions there and in the comments here to the contrary, that the forum is to identify technical issues and to request features (e.g., "wider this; drop-down that"), not to shit all over the redesign, lament the loss of our collective tv-obsessive innocence, or attribute motives to the choices made. You can read this either as "we're tired of the criticism" or "our new bosses made us do it over our strenuous objection and there's no going back, so stop creating friction." Whatever the reason, it isn't going to help TwoP's rep as a site that gleefully dishes it out but refuses to take it.

(3) A few months ago, Miss Alli started dropping statements like "when I was a lawyer," etc. She's now listed as a Head of Programming. So it looks like she's a full-time Bravo employee now. Wonder if she got a piece of the purchase price.

(4) Come to think of it, if TwoP is now part of a bureaucracy, does that mean they're going to have less latitude to piss off the audience with random banishments?
REST ASSURED, MANY MARTINIS ARE BEING DRUNK: The Match Game panel in the afterlife has another member, with Brett Somers joining Charles Nelson Reilly and Gene Rayburn.
IT MAY BE A KIND OF LUNCH-COUNTER ART, BUT THEN ART IS SO VAGUE AND LUNCH IS SO REAL: Last night, The Daily Show won its fifth consecutive Emmy for "Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series." If you look back over the list of previous winners for that category, you'll see that there actually hasn't been much "variety" over the past couple of decades, which have been dominated by late-night comedy shows. But as a recent article in Variety pointed out, that category used to belong to true "variety programs," from Your Show of Shows to Laugh-In to The Carol Burnett Show. And where did those variety shows come from? In large part, from vaudeville.

Vaudeville emerged in the late 19th century, growing out of several different sources: the "olio" segment of minstrel shows, the multiple acts of the circus, the rapid-fire musical/comedy/dance routines of concert saloons and burlesque. A key figure in American vaudeville was Tony Pastor, whose New York theatres offered more family-friendly "variety shows" during the 1880s and 1890s. But the real vaudeville business didn't really take off until Benjamin Franklin Keith and Edward F. Albee (grandfather of the playwright) established a whole circuit of cheap vaudeville theatres that promised continuous, wholesome, entertaining shows for all classes of patrons. The Keith-Albee "Sunday School" circuit -- so-called for its strict regulation of both performers' routines and audience members' behavior -- quickly became the industry standard, and vaudeville took its place as the leading form of stage entertainment for the next several decades. Observers hailed vaudeville as a quintessentially American format; as Edwin Milton Royle put it in the statement quoted in the post title, it was a "lunch-counter art," a product of "the era of the department store and the short story."

Conveniently, motion pictures arrived right around this time, so we actually have some film records of early vaudeville performances. The variety is quite remarkable: animal acts, acrobats, dramatic sketches, dancers, strongmen, escape artists, and especially comedians. As producers liked to say, vaudeville had "something for everybody," and if you didn't like one act, you only had to wait a few minutes for the next one to come along.

Yet while film did provide a way to record vaudeville, the movies also eventually challenged vaudeville's pop-culture supremacy, as would radio and television in their time. Some performers made the transition to new media, as did the variety format, but over the past generation or so, vaudeville has largely disappeared. Or has it? Are there any elements of today's popular culture that seem indebted to vaudeville? Do you see any chance for the variety format making a return to pop-culture prominence?
IF THE THUNDER DON'T GET YOU THEN THE LIGHTNING WILL: Robert Jordan, author of the enormously long (and still unfinished) Wheel of Time series, has died at the age of 58. The Wheel of Time series was something I had yet to get to, but given its popularity -- and his undeniable benefit to the world of speculative fiction -- I thought a thread might be appropriate for his fans.
CAN WE PASS OUT VIRTUAL CIGARS? I am delighted to pass along word that regular commenter Kevbo Nobo and his wife have welcomed a newborn into their lives. Writes Kevbo, "His name is Duncan (a decision made final when we watched seasons 1 & 2 of Veronica Mars last month); 6 lbs, 2 oz, 18.5 inches long. He & Mrs Nobo are both fine."

Sunday, September 16, 2007

BLUE, GREEN, ORANGE AND PURPLE: USA Today turned 25 years old this weekend, and as America's most-read daily newspaper, we probably ought to say something about it. But other than the introduction of color printing to daily newspapers, I'm not quite sure what else I'd highlight. Maybe the formalization of sports-on-tv criticism as a legitimate beat? You can read their self-chronology here.

It's a newspaper that I only read when it's available for free (at a hotel, or abandoned at an airport), and I can't think of anything that it does better than other newspapers or any writer there I find that interesting or memorable. So when, and why, do you read it?
THE ACADEMY OF TELEVISION ARTS AND SCIENCES WELCOMES YOU: It's Emmy night, and many of us will be liveblogging in the comments. Do join us for all the festivities, and feel free to make your Award and Necrology Applause-O-Meter predictions while you still can. Among those also live-blogging or chatting will be Lisa de Moraes and, time permitting, Alan Sepinwall.

(On the latter: Merv Griffith's primacy beats Jane Wyman's recency, with Calvert DeForest taking third over Tom Poston.)
BETTER STILL, EVERYONE SAYS "SCREW THIS" AND HANDS THEIR AWARDS OVER TO KYLE CHANDLER AND CONNIE BRITTON: We need a thread to pre-show discuss the main Emmys. airing tonight. Seems like a safe guess it's going to be a lovefest for The Sopranos (which has to be the front-runner for drama series, leading actor, and directing/writing awards), with comedy seeming likely to be spread out (Baldwin will hopefully break Shalhoub's streak, Ferrera seems likely to win for Ugly Betty, and while NPH should win, Jeremy Piven probably will). And while Stephen Colbert can't lose to Barry Manilow this year, he could lose to Tony Bennett. It's also a safe bet we're not going to have anything as brilliant as last year's opening ("No, I did not have Conan O'Brien fall through the ceiling."). Share your hopes (Runway beating TAR) and fears (the rather inexplicable nominee Boston Legal sweeping--even if I could deal with Shatner winning).